Vassell takes chance to propel resurgent Villa to new heights

Aston Villa 3 Fulham 0
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In the battle of the bandanas it was Juan Pablo Angel who was the head honcho. The Colombian's sixth goal in six games gave him the edge over Fulham's equally sharp Louis Saha but it was a third striker whose contribution proved the more deadly.

England's Darius Vassell scored with two cleanly struck volleys, hit with a confidence that belies the fact they were his first goals at home since New Year's Day. That's 362 days. Indeed he had been surprisingly included but justified the decision with a bristling display. His pace was a constant weapon.

To add spice, the future of all three players is a cause for debate. Whether Fulham will accept the Manchester United millions for Saha, whether Villa will cash in on Angel, or finally lose patience with Vassell, time will soon tell. On present form allowing any to leave would be a brave decision.

The victory was Villa's biggest of the season and means they have now won five home games on the spin - leaving their supporters a little giddy after the morass that had preceded that run. The difference for the manager, David O'Leary, is simple. They are taking their chances and lifted themselves into the top half of the table for the first time under his stewardship.

For Fulham it was a sobering third defeat in four games. "That is poor form. We have put in a lot of hard work but that form is relegation form," said their ever-frank manager, Chris Coleman, who stated that "two or three" players were needed.

His anguish will have been compounded by a clear tactical error. Villa's first goal came after the visitors had surrendered the early initiative which had been seized by Steed Malbranque. Playing down the right he had embarrassed the opposing full-back to such an extent that Villa may as well have had J-Lo, never mind Jlloyd, out there. First a header by Alain Goma - after fine, jinking work by Malbranque - was hoofed off the line. And then the midfielder's point-blank shot was brilliantly saved by Thomas Sorensen. Saha was equally prominent - with his marker, Ronnie Johnsen, struggling - but Angel also came close. Vassell outstripped Goma and stood the ball up for a volley from his unmarked strike partner. Edwin van der Sar parried smartly.

Fulham switched Malbranque to the opposing flank, with the more erratic Luis Boa Morte providing less of a threat to Samuel. The game slipped into a lull after the visiting storm until Villa roused themselves. Samuel - newly emboldened - barrelled through two tackles, one against Moritz Volz which he should never have won, before curling a low cross into the six-yard area for Angel, who had been an injury doubt, to lift the ball into the net for his 13th goal this term. "It brought belief," said O'Leary. Malbranque was immediately switched back to the right. Too late. As a moment it captured the game. "We lost all our individual battles," bemoaned Coleman.

After the break, two efforts from Saha - the second narrowly wide from 20 yards - were a reminder of the threat. It was Fulham playing the more forceful football but they then capitulated alarmingly. A hopeful and high long punt from Samuel found Vassell inexplicably unmarked 12 yards out. He finished with a flourish, left-footed through the goalkeeper's legs.

Villa's third also resulted from defensive disarray. The substitute Thomas Hitzlsperger dinked in a routine centre, again from the right, and Vassell kept his eye on the ball as it narrowly evaded Angel. He met it on the full from five yards. A sweet strike. A sweet victory. "We were beaten up," said Coleman. Beaten claret and blue.

Goals: Angel (33) 1-0; Vassell (67) 2-0; Vassell (82) 3-0.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen 7; Delaney 5 (Ridgewell 6, 62), Mellberg 6, Johnsen 5, Samuel 5; Hendrie 5 (Hitzlsperger 6, 75), McCann 7, Whittingham 6, Barry 6; Vassell 8, Angel 8 (Moore, 84). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Crouch.

Fulham (4-5-1): Van der Sar 6; Volz 3, Knight 4, Goma 3, Harley 4; Malbranque 6 (Sava, 82), Djetou 5, Clark 5, Inamoto 4 (Hayles 5, 68), Boa Morte 5; Saha 7. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Melville, Green.

Referee: B Knight 5 (Kent).

Man of the match: Vassell.

Attendance: 35,617.